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It’s their future: why aren’t we building cities that young people actually want to inherit?

Photography By Annie Spratt, Jose Maria Sava, Pascal Meier
Published 11.11.21

Cities have a reputation for being epicentres of the old. They laud and celebrate historic sights, architecture, culture and, let’s face it, people. But when we look at who actually lives and spends their lives there, that fixation on the past feels out of place.

It’s estimated that by 2050 more than two thirds of the world population will live in urban areas. Around the globe, as house and land prices continue to balloon, most of us understand that we’ll probably spend our lives tucked together in these urban centres. 

With that future mapped out, it feels obvious that a shift needs to take place. Cities need to think young, and embrace fresh ideas, values and, importantly, people.

It’s not a revolutionary statement to say young people love cities. For many of us, as soon as we’re able to, we pack our bags and move there to work, study and enjoy a life a little more buzzy than what’s on offer in the burbs or regional areas. The benefits go both ways. Our presence is valuable: we spend our time and money there. Supporting and influencing both the economy and culture. 

So if we spend so much of our time and money in these urban areas, why don’t young people have more of a say in what cities look like now and in the future? 

The City of Sydney’s deputy lord mayor, Jess Scully, thinks about that question a lot. In her opinion, it’s because people – whether they are younger generations or under-represented groups – “don’t realise how important it is to have their voices heard”. Further to that point, she’s upfront about whose voices have historically been the loudest.

“In politics, we hear disproportionately from a small group of people…people who know how the system works,” Scully says. “And for the most part, they tend to be older, wealthier and to come from English-speaking backgrounds.” 

Scully describes these groups – those who know “the lay of the land” – as being “good advocates for themselves and for their own perspectives”. But while they’re loud, they’re hardly a realistic representation of what the community actually wants and needs. In reality, those whose opinions are rarely heard make up a greater part of the population of the city. 

The disparity between who has a say and who doesn’t points to a glaring inequity in how cities are shaped. It’s an imbalance that Scully has worked hard over the years to correct, largely through proactive outreach.

Jess Scully in Kings Cross community garden - City of Sydney

One of her most recent projects, YIMBY (yes, in my backyard), exemplifies this approach. YIMBY is an online platform that gives people tools to participate in local decision making. It’s aimed at empowering the silent majority of the community: renters, those born overseas, people under the age of 60 and students. “[It gives them] the skills and access and prompts to have their voices heard in ways that governments hear,” Scully says. 

The overarching goal of YIMBY is to gather more representative feedback on a broad spectrum of issues, including climate action. “In the City of Sydney, 98 per cent of people tell you that action on climate change is a number one priority,” reflects Scully. “The most progressive surveys of the federal public find either 74 or 84 per cent of Australians want immediate action on climate change…but when that action takes physical, concrete, tangible form where people live, which could be installing a cycleway to enable more active transport or taking a car space and turning it into a rain garden, we don’t hear from that 75, 85 [or] 98 per cent of people. We hear from those who don’t want that to happen.

“If the majority of people had their voices heard, we would get very different policy in Australia.”

Scully sees proactive channels as an important way to foster active citizens and help people feel like their opinions matter. Equally, they are a timely reminder of the power of a “yes” and the mechanisms available to anyone who wants to participate in political processes outside of the ballot box. 

These channels are also ways to counter the misconception that you need to be highly educated, experienced or able to understand all the ins and outs of politics to have your say. “All you need to know is what you believe, what you prioritise and what is important to you. And then you need to communicate that, [which you can] do through feedback in the time between elections as well as your vote,” Scully says. 

On the point of finding out what is most important to you, and searching for avenues to express those opinions, Scully has a wealth of experience. She founded Australia’s largest creative industries event, Vivid Sydney, and has previously worked as a public art curator and magazine editor. Though she’s always been interested in social justice issues and politics, it was this work that brought her into the political sphere.

“In my career and over the course of my twenties, I found that politics actually dictates who has access…to spaces or opportunities or to funding. Those come about – they’re either enabled or disabled – by political decisions,” she says. 

This intersection of politics and creative industries was the seed of her interest in cities and their future, as well as driving her to become a formidable champion for Sydney residents, especially those that fall into under-represented groups.  

Scully is backing her idealism with real action. Writing for the Guardian last year, she reflected on a “flourishing of new ways” democracy is being done around the world and the evolving forms of citizen participation that she is interested in exploring: collaborative budgeting, online platforms, assemblies and juries. In late 2019, she saw one of these citizen juries in action at the City of Sydney. Over the course of six weeks, 50 Sydneysiders were asked to give direction and feedback on guiding plans for the next decade.

More than 2,500 ideas from residents were gathered and, at the end of the program, a final report was delivered with eight key recommendations. One of these recommendations challenged Sydney’s leaders to create a city that is not only sustainable but also regenerative: “A city which doesn’t just limit damage but that cleans the air and the water, that gives back more than it takes.”

Ross Sneddon

Policies and actions to get there are already underway: biodiversity corridors have been proposed, a strong greening policy with the ambition to have 40 per cent green cover by 2050 has been implemented and the council is looking to repurpose some of the city’s 38.3 hectares of laneways and turn them into places for communal gardens or water capture. 

Other recommendations from the citizen jury included making sure First Nations people are centred and that there is a process of truth telling, building a city that is innovative and future ready, making housing more affordable and accessible, embedding arts and creativity in everyday life, and having a 24-hour city. “So again, that’s what happens when you hear from people who are informed and are representative,” Scully says. 

What the citizen jury, her time as a councillor and research for her book, Glimpses of Utopia, have shown Scully is the capacity of the average citizen for big picture thinking. They proved to her that when you empower and enable citizens, they push politics and society further. 

Building a city that future generations want to inherit is a lot of work, but Scully is optimistic that it can be achieved. “I think we have all the ingredients to be a model city of what it looks like to have a fair, creative and sustainable city for the 21st century,” she says. Although she is unequivocal about how that version of Sydney is realised: “We need everybody: everybody’s voice and everybody’s vote and everybody’s active citizenship in the time between elections. 

“Because if we just leave it to the people who say no, then we don’t get that picture. What we get is a future that looks like the past. And that doesn’t work for a climate change future. And it doesn’t work for a fair future either.” 

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